Like most baseball fans, we at Zisk are men of refinement. We never wear white after Labor Day, we tip 20%, and, from time to time, we check out the latest in off-Broadway productions. This past spring, at the always reliable Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre in NYC, we saw Darryl Strawberry's one-man show, Darryl, and it was brilliant—even with understudy Chris Gethard in the title role. Rather than rehash well-known events, Darryl tracks Strawberry’s long, slow, painful fall from grace, showing us never-before-seen sides of the troubled ballplayer—how he was inspired by wheelchair basketball, how he patched things up with Keith Hernandez, how he found the cure for cancer (heroin, of course), and how, briefly, he reigned supreme over the pits of hell. It may sound like an April Fool's Day joke, but it’s for real. It's also hysterical. As it turns out, Strawberry was unavailable for an interview but his understudy, the aforementioned Chris Gethard, was willing to chat with Zisk, offering a behind-the-scenes look at Darryl: Darryl Strawberry's One-Man Show. (Interview by Mike Faloon)
Zisk: We’re talking with actor Chris Gethard, understudy for Darryl Strawberry. How many weeks have you been his understudy?
Chris Gethard: The first draft of the play was written four years ago and I was involved from the beginning, so I’ve known about this for four years and I’ve been doing the show for three months; I’ve been his understudy for three months and it’s been a lot more work than I thought because he has not shown up a single time. As far as I know he has no idea that he has an understudy that’s performing his show, which he may or may not know even exists, which probably explains why he hasn’t shown up.
Zisk: Have you received any feedback from either the Mets or the Yankees?
CG: I have not yet heard anything but I know at least that someone in the Mets organization knows about it only because someone who came to the show whose uncle worked in the Mets organization had told him about it. My great fear is that they’re going to show up and sue me and/or the UCB Theatre for the existence of the show, but so far no luck on that. That would be the worst thing ever, but also the coolest thing ever.
Zisk: Were you there when Darryl wrote it, or did he feed you ideas and you wrote it? How did that work?
CG: He wrote the whole thing is what we pre-suppose, Darryl Strawberry sat down and wrote that whole thing. That’s the in-character answer, that I didn’t write a single word of the entire thing. Darryl Strawberry wrote the entire thing and just can’t make the performances. In reality, I started writing it four years ago. But even in the premise of the show at the end of the show I like to thank him and say we’re tinkering with this part or we’re going to re-write this bit so it’ll be different next week. I do like to tell the world that Darryl Strawberry wrote this show.
Zisk: What sparked the idea?
CG: The show actually started with my brother. He went to LaSalle, a tiny liberal arts school where everybody knew everybody and he hung out with the punk rock kids and there was a large hippie contingent and in a very clichéd way they hated each other. These hippie kids would hold open mic poetry nights and my brother and all his friends would go and disrupt them and try to ruin their poetry nights. Then my brother started signing up and giving monologues as Darryl Strawberry. I asked him if I could steal the premise and I came up with the idea of being the understudy and added a lot more layers to it. I think there’s one joke of my brother’s, the one about Darryl Strawberry’s great-great-grandfather inventing the strawberry.
Zisk: I love it when Darryl takes a bite of a strawberry and then reminds the audience, “Royalties, bitches!” My wife hasn’t been able to see the show yet, but she loves that joke.
CG: We started getting written up and a rumor went around that Darryl Strawberry’s actually doing a show and the first three times I did the show [the audience was] friends of mine, it was comedians, it was people who knew me. And then about a month in there were lots of people showing up fully decked out in Mets gear and showing up with things they wanted autographed. At first it was funny, but then to get on stage in front of those people was terrifying. There have been times when they announce that Darryl can’t make it and there are resounding boos and I have to win them over, and that strawberry bit tends to get them, that is where I can feel people being like, Okay, we get it.
Zisk: When I saw the show, I found it interesting to scan the crowd to see which people were there because it was a comedy show and which people were there because they heard that Darryl Strawberry was appearing off-Broadway.
CG: Instead of house music I play a copy of the “Let’s Go Mets” video that they put out in ’86, and these guys, all across the room you could feel these Mets fans uniting, it was really kind of amazing. Backstage I couldn’t see them but I could hear them. One guy would yell out something about Gary Carter and then another guy on the opposite side of the audience would yell out a stat or another player’s name, or Mookie Wilson would come up and everyone was like, “Mookie!” or they mentioned Rusty Staub and it got a big cheer. That was one of the weeks where there was an “ugghh” when they announced, “His understudy Chris Gethard will be doing the show tonight,” but then two minutes into it those guys were laughing more than anybody. From the start I was hoping this show would go beyond just the comedian scene. I got a big rush out of having the Mets fans show up and actually enjoy it because that’s going to a totally different audience.
Zisk: Most of the show is comprised of fabrications. Are there any events in the show that are actually from his life?
CG: The first time we did the show it was probably five minutes longer and that entire five minutes was true facts, things that actually happened, exposition about Darryl Strawberry’s real life, his career, coming up in Crenshaw and being on the best high school team ever, a lot of stuff like that. And what we found was that the people who thought it was Darryl just wanted a comedy show after a certain point, once they got the premise they didn’t care and it was amazing to me. The thing that shocked me the most was how little convincing I have to do. The very first video that plays in the show is Mike Wallace doing the intro to a 60 Minutes piece and it’s the exposition they did—he had an amazing career, then he got into drugs, cancer, beset by demons, and this and that. Once the audience saw that they didn’t give a shit about anything else I had to say about Darryl Strawberry, so we trimmed stuff out, to the point where the entire show is a lie. Every week people come up to me, even good friends of mine, and ask, How much of that is true? Did Darryl Strawberry really beat up a cop and knock out his horse? People think the most ludicrous things are true. I was a huge Andy Kaufman fan as a kid—and I would never compare myself to Andy Kaufman—but, wow, it’s so much easier to trick people than I thought.
Zisk: Was that the idea from early on, to follow the arc of his career but plug in different events?
CG: My original idea when I sat down with my director, I was like, I have this idea I’m going to pretend to be Darryl Strawberry and I’ll say that I’m his understudy and basically what I’m going to do is tell a story that everybody knows about him—like everybody knows that he and Doc Gooden were drug buddies—so I’ll get up and reference something like that, something that actually happened, and then I’ll follow it up by saying here’s the stuff that didn’t make the papers, the stuff that the Mets covered up. I started doing monologues at open mics around town and even then people didn’t respond at all to the true stuff and the fake stuff they flipped out for. Everybody knows enough about him already, he’s a character, especially in New York City. He’s almost mythological at this point. I can say anything—anything’s feasible—and if anything could be true, nothing has to be.
Zisk: Now that I think about it he was part of the ’80s Mets and the ’90s Yankees, the city’s two biggest teams of the past 20-25 years.
CG: Yeah, I grew up in northern New Jersey which is 100% under the wing of the New York media and I remember the ’86 Mets. That team had hero status and he was one of the chosen few and every time he got arrested and every time he got kicked out of baseball you could feel it, the entire city would get back on his side. I remember so well when he came back in the minor leagues in the early 90s, Minnesota, I think.
Zisk: Right, he came back with one of the independent leagues.
CG: In New York, when that was on the news, that wasn’t sports, that was anchor desk material. In this town there’s very little need for exposition. Anyone who’s been here, even for five years, knows who he is really is. It’s almost like Mike Tyson, with very few alterations this could be the Mike Tyson story but I would never do that because I would have to impersonate his voice.
Zisk: And you’d have to commit to the face tattoo later in the show.
CG: That would be funny if I did his understudy and I came out with the fake face tattoo. There’s your sequel. Yeah, those videos—the ’86 Mets video and the 60 Minutes piece—are priceless. You have Mike Wallace calling Strawberry a loser. My show kind of begins and ends with Darryl Strawberry saying, Leave me alone, every time I do anything it’s on the news and that’s not fair. Watching that video that was a point where I was like, this guy has had a rough life and we forget that. He’s a freak show and we tune in or read about him hoping he has another downfall so he can come back, but it is not an easy life. I’m sure all the scrutiny doesn’t help.
Zisk: But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to exploit it.
CG: No, not at all, I’ll exploit it for laughs, but that Mike Wallace video… The only two guys in that video who stick by him are like these equipment managers from the Mets who never gave up on him. I feel bad for the guy in the sense that people make mistakes and people never ever let him live down his. I’m sure a large percentage of people have done things as bad or worse than Darryl Strawberry has but he will never be allowed to move on with his life.
Zisk: It would be funny if one of the anecdotes you made up came back to him, a person walking up to him and asking if he really punched out a horse.
CG: A girl came up to me and said her parents live next to him in Florida and she said she’d be sure to tell them about the show, and I was like, Please don’t! I don’t want to get sued. But my ultimate dream is for him to come see it and see what he thinks.
Zisk: It’s like you fear the cliff as much as you want to go over it.
CG: The first time I did the show someone made a reservation under the name Sid Fernandez to mess with me. I saw that on the list and I freaked out. I would love for someone from that team to see it. It would be a complete disaster but it would be completely fascinating.
Zisk: Have you done anything to directly to draw the attention of the Mets?
CG: For the first two months it was easy to get a crowd—the premise is good enough, people heard it was a pretty decent show, and it had a celebrity’s name attached to it. As long as that was happening I was happy to get some press, but I didn’t go to them [the Mets] directly. I do think that if they know about it it will get shut down. I’ve been doing it for two and a half months and the crowds are starting to wane, so I’m starting to look for ways to get more attention for the show, to keep it alive. Part of that is seeing if I can get into some kind of trouble and parlaying that into crowds again. That will kill it faster but at least it will go out with a bang.
Zisk: At one point in the show you wear a Yankees jacket. Is that autographed?
CG: Yeah, that’s why I wear a Yankees jacket and not a Mets jacket. I like that idea that he signed it and I’m wearing it in the show. In a sense there is a little bit of him there, I’m bringing as much of him as I can to the stage. If I’m going to make fun of the guy, this is my attempt to honor him. Maybe that’s too much of a stretch, too cheesy.
Zisk: You’ve got 50 tally marks in the “mock him” column and one tally mark in the “honor him” column, but it’s there.
CG: Yeah, I don’t think it balances it out at all.
Zisk: I also like the Dodgers jacket that you wear at the end.
CG: I found that on eBay. I would type in “Darryl Strawberry” and I found that about a month before the show went up. When I opened the box that came in I was laughing with tears in my eyes. The other thing I did was order thousands and thousands of Darryl Strawberry baseball cards and used those as flyers. I also got a copy of “Chocolate Strawberry,” the rap song he put out, I got it on vinyl. I’m still looking for a copy of “Let’s Get Mets-merized,” which is a rap album that the entire ’86 Mets put out. The best line is “You all know me/I’m the baddest terror/They call me Rick Aguilera,” it’s all lines like that. Those guys were amazing. I’m sure readers of Zisk are going to hate this, but I grew up a Yankees fan, but doing this show has made me obsessed with those Mets teams of the past. Did you read the Bad Guys book? It came out a year or two ago and it was about how the 1986 Mets were collectively the worst group of human beings to spend any amount of time together. It’s all the stories of all the things they did, the fights, coke parties, everything, all the arrests. They said in that book that, I guess, Mel Stottlemyre ruined Dwight Gooden by forcing him to learn a curveball that subsequently tinkered with his fastball mechanics. I did obsessive research, I became 100% obsessed with the Mets, the hardness with which they attacked being rock stars.
Mike Faloon lives on top of a hill and roots for Dontrelle Willis even when he's pitching against the Mets.